It’s all well and good

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GRAMMAR GUY
By Jordan Fischer

 

Question: “I hear people mixing up ‘well’ and ‘good’ on a constant basis. Can you explain how to use each of them correctly?”

Answer: Yes, I can. I’m afraid this one is often pretty ingrained into people’s heads the wrong way, however.

“Well” and “good” can both serve as adjectives, adverbs and nouns. As an adjective, “well” means “in good health” or “free from illness,” while “good” means “of a favorable character or tendency.” “Good” can also mean “free from injury or disease” in its adjective form (we’ll touch on this later). As an adverb, “well” indicates that something was done in a satisfactory way, while “good” is a synonym for “well” typically used in conversational speech or as an intensive. Finally, as a noun, “good” means “that which is morally right” or “righteousness,” while “well” means a hole in the ground filled with water or oil and from which wishes may spring forth (if you believe in that sort of thing).

If you’re selecting an adverb to follow an action verb, the choice is clear: Go with “well.” Jim writes well. Jane dances well. Tom cooks well. You get the idea. When “good” follows an action verb, it should typically be a reference to a beneficial work: charity, community service, etc. In these cases, one is “doing good.”

Many verbs, however, can function as both action and linking verbs. The easiest example would be sensory verbs: touch, taste, smell, feel, etc. If you’re wearing perfume, you might smell good. However, if you have a cold, you might not smell well. In the first case, “smell” is a linking verb. In the second, it is active. You must ask yourself whether the subject of the verb is performing or receiving the action. If the subject is performing the action, i.e. doing the smelling, then follow the action verb rule and go with “well.” If the subject is receiving the action, i.e. being smelled, you’ll need to ask yourself which word’s definition better fits what you’re trying to say, as both “well” and “good” can follow linking verbs as predicate adjectives.

As a final note, many people wonder whether “I am good” is an acceptable response to the question “How are you?” As both words can follow verbs as predicate adjectives, most dictionaries would say that, yes, it is an acceptable reply. In this instance, think what you are being asked. If you are responding about your physical wellbeing, go with “well.” If you are talking about your mental state or general state of being, “good” is an acceptable, and often more accurate, choice.


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